Nuclear power. The idea conjures unsettling thoughts of annihilation, cold-war era proliferation of warheads, pernicious environmental disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi, and the ever-haunting images of radiation exposure and fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These morally gray associations serve to shape our perception of green energy as something that places nuclear and environmental interests in opposition. But the situation surrounding the rapid spread of the global coronavirus pandemic has placed a baffling reality into the equation: Nuclear tech plays a major role in speeding up early detection of the COVID-19 coronavirus, despite facing hardship — like a plant shutdown — amid the pandemic.
Nuclear technology detects COVID-19 coronavirus
The global response to the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus is changing the face of modern society with every passing day — days ago the U.S. and Canada came to a mutual agreement to close their border to all non-essential travel.
As COVID-19 cases surge past 15,000 in the U.S., and more than 250,000 globally, the nuclear industry has come forward with a vital diagnostic technique aided by nuclear tech, called Real-Time Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction, or RT-PCR.
The RT-PCR technique helps identify coronavirus infection accurately and within hours in both human and animal hosts. Using ionizing radiation, it identifies gene-expression during DNA repair and cell-cycle checkpoints like cell death (apoptosis). These data points tell scientists a lot about exposure and viral paths of transmission through populations.
Recently, Elon Musk said Tesla would produce ventilators if a shortage existed — an offer New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio seized on hours later when he confirmed the existence of a shortage and requested assistance from Musk directly. But in addition to a shortage of masks, there is also a shortage of supply — and availability — of diagnostic kits. Companies like the startup Everlywell are working with the federal government to potentially offer free at-home testing kits, but this has yet to come to fruition.
More tangibly, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will provide diagnostic kits, equipment, and training in nuclear-assisted detection techniques to all countries requesting help in curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
So far, fourteen countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean have requested the aid of the IAEA in a global effort to contain the rapidly-spreading infection.
"The Agency takes pride in its ability to respond quickly to crises, as we did in the recent past with the Ebola, Zika and African Swine Fever viruses," said Mariano Grossi, Director General of IAEA, according to Forbes. "Contributing to international efforts to deal with the coronavirus will remain a priority for me as long as the outbreak persists."
Next week, the Joint IAEA/Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Animal Production and Health Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, will hold the first training course in detection techniques. In attendance will be medical and veterinary experts from Cote d'Ivoire, the Republic of Congo, Cambodia, Kenya, Malaysia, Madagascar, the Philippines, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Thailand, said the IAEA, according to Forbes. Further regional courses are slated for more countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Training will raise awareness on biosafety and biosecurity procedures to ensure veterinary workers' protection and health through sampling and analysis processes, in hopes of preventing further contamination. Trainees will receive emergency toolkits along with equipment for personal protection, case-by-case diagnostic reagents, and laboratory consumables. Additional equipment — like bio-safety cabinets and RT-PCR devices — will also go to several national laboratories.
By training veterinary experts, the IAEA hopes to help the international community prepare for early detection of viruses that infect animals — the consensus on how COVID-19 made its way to humans.
In addition to learning how to test animals that are domestic, wild, or implicated in the transmission of coronaviruses like the new strain SARS-CoV-2, those who learn how to put nuclear-assisted techniques to the task will also gain the ability to recognize a full suite of viruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
This is why nuclear-assisted techniques like RT-PCR are crucial in the rapid detection and characterization of viruses like the COVID-19 coronavirus. "Such tools are the only means to have certainty," said Enrique Estrada Lobato, IAEA Nuclear Medicine Physician.
And this won't be the first time nuclear technology has worked to push back against diseases. Counter-intuitively, radiation is the most environmentally-friendly known tactic to control insects, including the tsetse fly — a scourge that nuclear helped eradicate from areas of Africa, according to Forbes.
Nuclear suspension amid pandemic
As both public and private institutions are paused in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, nuclear, too, is taking a hit. Earlier this week, the operator of a nuclear power plant in southwestern Japan suspended one of its reactors, according to NHK News.
This was due to the inability of administrators to meet a deadline for building mandatory facilities to deal with emergencies. While the suspension may not have been a direct pre-emptive response to the growing threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Japan, it highlights the greater stress that emergencies put on the world's nuclear energy infrastructure.
Earlier this month in Germany, nuclear plant operators stepped up precautions to protect employees from infection, reports Clean Energy Wire. If there were a coronavirus outbreak amid nuclear plant operators, this could put added stress on countries that rely on nuclear for a significant portion of their energy.
Drawback in fossil fuels, renewables
The global drop in airline travel and fossil fuel use saw a brief spike in social media trends for renewable energy to take the place of carbon-emitting fuels — if global carbon emissions are falling and the Earth appears less polluted, the reasoning was, then perhaps the world's energy economy could use the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to take a shortcut to a new standard of renewable energy.
However, it wasn't long before the downward-shifting economy took its toll on solar as well. In February, Bloomberg reported that the supply of key equipment for solar and wind farms in China and beyond were threatened by production delays, later confirmed by manufacturers like Trina Solar Ltd., and Manila Electric Co. in the Philippines.
In March, Greg Wetstone, CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, also confirmed the supply chain issue.
"There are very real concerns about the ability to get critically important parts of the supply chain in a timely fashion, and that's particularly important for our sector because a critical piece of financing are (sic) tax credits," said Wetstone, adding that tax credits had hard deadlines.
While traditional renewables face increased hardship and an uncertain future amid the coronavirus pandemic, nuclear tech is stepping up in the fight to curb the global spread of COVID-19. One never hopes for the worst, but if it comes, there may yet be time for nuclear power to play the role of alternative energy if fossil fuels and renewables see continued drawback amid the global crisis.